Sunday, 16 March 2014

Picture Book Apps - Creating Good Screen Time

Today's welcome guest is Helen Dineen, a picture book author and mum of two living on the south coast of England. Helen signed with the Anne Clark Literary Agency last year and is hoping that 2014 is the year her stories might find a publisher. She also reviews book apps for young children at Find her on Twitter @aitcheldee and @capptivatedkids

I've been blogging about kids' apps for nearly two years with my children (now aged 6 and 4) - as a parent rather than a writer. Back in 2011, I joined Twitter looking for publishers and authors to follow as I got more serious about writing my own stories. One of the first I followed was Kate Wilson, who was tweeting about Nosy Crow's very first app, The Three Little Pigs. As soon as I had an iPad I downloaded it and was instantly hooked. The Three Little Pigs showed me how good apps can be. Since then the explosion in story apps leading to the creation of the Interactive Stories section on the App Store shows there is a real market for them.

But books and apps are very different beasts. I couldn't find specific research on the use of book apps,  so I conducted a very unscientific Twitter survey.  11 out of 12 replies counted book apps as screen time, and at least 9 out of 12 restricted their use with their children. One replied, " Nice way for kids to "read" on own, but we do limit all screen time... Always make time to read real books!"  Only one did not distinguish between apps and books  and added "I don't restrict time on them as we do anything to encourage reading."

With this in mind, I hope there will be increasing opportunities for picture book writers to write apps, while being confident that "real" books will not be abandoned by young children or their parents and carers any time soon.

What Apps Do Well

28% of 3-4 year olds use a tablet computer at home[i] . Picture books are particularly well suited to reading on tablets due to their relatively short length, highly illustrated nature, interactivity (e.g. lift the flap) and the ease of use of tablets for young children. There are a number of benefits for storytellers:

·       Freedom from format constrictions such as number of pages and story structure. You can create a story with multiple pathways (Little Red Riding Hood, Sleepy Mole) or a circular life cycle story (Franklin Frog, Parker Penguin).
·       Have the reader change the story with their own suggestions (Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App uses the microphone for this).
·       Add atmosphere through narration, music and sound effects.
·       Add interactivity which draws the reader into the story e.g.  solve a puzzle to reach the next page (Bartleby's Buttons) or show the reader reflected in a mirror using the iPad camera (Nosy Crow's Cinderella).
Little Red Riding Hood
Sleepy Mole
There's so much possibility out there that the most important bit - the story - can be drowned out. In an early blog post I compared apps to Powerpoint - remember those presentations which used every kind of slide transition and silly bits of clip art, just because they were there? But even when all the bells and whistles are used appropriately, too often I find myself wishing the story itself was stronger. And when the story is strong (perhaps based on an existing picture book) often the technology very little, perhaps just sound effects or animations. Which is why I think that...

Apps Need Picture Book Authors!

I would love to see more established names producing original content with app developers (and I do think it is a shame Julia Donaldson could not be persuaded to take up the baton when Children's Laureate.) Original content produced specifically for the iPad is almost always better than transferring an existing picture book across. The interactivity can be developed alongside the story as one product rather than an add-on. Some aspects of existing books just don't work. To take one example, page turns often lose their impact when you have broken up the storytelling with interactivity. "And then he saw an ever so silly... [tap, tap, tap, make things move, after a few minutes turn the page] ...crocodile!" [wait, how did this sentence start again?]  

I also think quality story apps can compete with games.  Two parents responding to my Twitter survey said book apps count as "Good screen time".  Another said " ...count them as screen time as they're often so interactive -to the point where [she] refers to them as games."  Indeed the concern about apps replacing paper books is a distraction I think, from the wider issue of books losing out to TV, games and the internet as highlighted in BookTrust's latest reading habits survey.  The more that reading can sneakily join up with gameplay in apps like Nosy Crow's Jack and the Beanstalk and Alph and Betty's Topsy-Turvy World, the better.   I would also like to see more picture books connected to apps, providing extra content linking the two (see Moira's predictions in January).

I do think the opportunity is there to create more "good screen time." But I also think there are many ways in which picture books still have the edge.
Alph and Betty's Topsy Turvy World
Where Picture Books Win

It is so easy to see a picture book on the shelf, pick it up and start reading! It is much easier to share a book at home, in preschool and with a class. If you spill juice on it, you've only lost one book. You can borrow piles of them from the library at a time for free. Let's face it, tablets are expensive and although many app developers provide video trailers so you can see what you are buying, you do still need to purchase every app you use. It's possible to gift an app, but not nearly as exciting for a small child with nothing to unwrap on their birthday.

When reading, the parent is better able to control the use of the book and pace of the story with a  -book. Narration is the norm on apps - "When I use the iPad I don't read with them, I let them use it on read-to-me mode." This means the experience of reading a book is usually more shared with parents who spend time talking around the story more, doing all the silly voices, and getting involved in their children's world.  You can touch and feel the pages, which can also be bigger - particularly good for large or detailed illustrations. You can't reproduce the impact of a huge, intricate double spread on an iPad!

And finally, using a book is easy. You turn the page, and read. When it comes to apps, there is no standard for activating page turns, turning narration on/off and so on. Every app is different, and children need to learn how they work. It isn't a big barrier for tech-savvy toddlers, but it is there.

The Future?

There are some great apps for this age group out there, and I hope more established picture book authors might get involved in writing original content and tapping in to the possibilities to merge storytelling and gameplay. But I don't believe technology will ever kill off picture books - books will wriggle up and make room for apps as they did for TV.  In fact it may well be TV which loses out in the battle for children's attention. For this age group in particular it will be for parents to find the balance,  and hopefully still choose to curl up with their child and a book or two.
Want to find out more? Here are three of my favourites -
·       Little Red Riding Hood
·       Dragon Brush
And see this great blog post by Kate Wilson on writing children's picture book apps.
Go on, I'd love to see more fantastic digital content to read and blog about!
Dragon Brush

[i] Ofcom Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes, October 2013


  1. Fascinating. Thanks, Helen. Parental attitudes are very interesting - suggesting that, at the moment, apps are seen as competing with games rather than books. My problem, as a parent, is finding quality apps from the many on offer - as I hardly ever see reviews in newspapers - so if my experience is anything to go by, there's a problem getting the apps to the audience. Your recommendations are highly useful.

  2. Really good post. I have an issue with apps being much more like games, and not very good ones at that. Like you I would love to see the app being exploited for what it is rather than as an adjunct to something else. The last time I looked at any kid's book apps (admittedly a year ago at least) I wasn't impressed. Even the much vaunted Nosy Crow 3 little pigs didn't do much for me. How does making the characters turn a somersault when clicked on further the narrative? it really annoyed me. Remember CD ROMS? I do. They were going to change the World weren't they? Did they? No. Apps are CD roms on a tablet, pretty much. Colour me underwhelmed. As for Picture Book authors getting involved in making apps. OK, so when was the last time anyone here was asked to do that? I never have been. I would love to work on apps but you have to understand authors and illustrators are just 'content providers', we don't do anything clever like coding pigs so they turn somersaults. Put the story tellers in charge for god's sake! Fah! ;-)
    Ooh I do like a good rant ;-)

  3. I love your rant, Jonathan. And totally agree - even with the slightly controversial bit about Three Little Pigs. Where's the story gone?! My kids don't like it, I don't like it. Sure, blowing down the houses is fun - but that's a game, not a story. I find even where production values are high, story is lost. Someone show me a 'story' app where that isn't the case - PLEASE! I'd love to see it, but haven't yet. And I've actually tried approaching publishers with picture book texts alongside interactive digital versions of the text, they're not interested. They either want to create content themselves or sell the rights to someone else. There's no interest (read 'profit') in creating quality content for stand alone picture books, as far as I can see. I'm torn; part of me thinks it's a missed opportunity, but then having not been impressed by any of the apps on the market as a parent and story lover, what are we really missing? Want to share a story? Read a book.

  4. Thank you for all these comments - I particularly appreciate the point of view of established writers such as yourselves, as I definitely wrote this piece from a parental perspective (I am not involved in the making of them) It's a shame to hear it is difficult for writers to be involved. I also agree with the somersaulting, but that was an early app and I think Nosy Crow has dropped most of the "nice but not useful" interactivity like that from future apps. I do feel there is still storytelling there, but can understand it isn't for everyone. I think my main point (though I tried to cover a lot in a small space!) was that books will be books, apps will be apps, but I hope we can all get along and maybe share expertise between them so that children have the best of both worlds. It's such an interesting debate though - will apps go the way of CD Roms? Let's see...

    1. Actually there were some cracking CD roms. Lets hope apps develop to be as good.

  5. Digital and print should get along, Helen, but somehow they don't just yet. It's very odd. I think it's to do with traditional publishing houses being slow to move with the times - a lot of dinosaurs at helms, doesn't help! It took my agent a lot of long, hard wrangling to even persuade my publishers to print my URL on book jackets. Tried to get them to include QR codes to download colouring sheets and audio games - forget it. Complete nightmare! They are so slow to embrace change, so perhaps expecting them to lead the charge is wrong. This is where companies like Nosy Crow are so refreshing and exciting (I just still think there's a lot of clever thinking that hasn't been done yet, but that's to be expected in what is still really a fairly new market).

    1. They want electronic rights to everything though. . .
      The trouble is that the 'economic crisis' devastated most of the more nimble, smaller independent publishers who might have shown the big boys a thing or two, leaving them without much competition. imho.

  6. AND! (sorry for disjointed reply) I think the same problem is happening as with the self-publishing thing. SO MUCH CR*P is getting made, and because traditional publishers aren't doing enough, the rubbish is outnumbering anything half decent. I totally agree with Moira's point about how hard it is to shop for good apps. A publisher's logo is at least a sign of a certain level of quality (if not 100% story satisfaction!). I'll shut up now.

  7. Most interesting! I've been told that it's so expensive to create Apps, there's hardly any profit to be had...Hence the amount of cheapy stuff out there, I guess. The point here is that those with storytelling experience, who are used to creating entertaining mind pathways through story, can help here, I am sure.

    1. I think developers and coders etc charge a lot for developing apps. I get approached every now and then by firms wanting to digitise my content etc, they aren't offering a partnership, they are touting for business and ask for ridiculous sums. 'Content' is hugely undervalued in the digital world. We need some consumer level app creation software. it would mean a lot of crap would be produced, (so what's new) but it would democratise the process and give people with fresh ideas the platform on which to develop them. I'm all for that!

  8. But there are zero print costs and minimal 'distribution' costs with digital, so surely if you have a good in-house digital production facility and create strong content, you should be making MORE than you make in print these days, given how few people buy books compared to apps?! But time has to be invested from the off - with everyone working together from concept - not tagged on as an after thought. That's a working culture thing and culture takes a very long time to evolve.

  9. That's a wonderful, and important, and everso slightly scary, challenge! Thank you.

  10. I absiolutely agree about the difficulty in finding good apps and the parallels with self publishing. Even harder because some big publishers are guilty of putting out the apps with minimal added value to print, and some tiny independents produce some of the better apps. I find Apps Playground (a review site put together by the Guardian journalist Stuart Dredge and his partner) to be a very good resource, as well as his round-ups of the best apps each year. Kirkus Reviews can also be a good place to look. But it certainly isn't nearly as easy as browsing in a book shop.

  11. Pippa, on a completely unrelated note, we "rescued" a very battered copy of You Choose from the library the other day for 10p. So good to see just how loved it had been by so many borrowers! A reminder again of how difficult it can be to replicate the physical experience of books on screen.

    1. Ah, that makes me happy! And I would claim that's a book that is interactive between book and audience, especially when the audience is of more than one person. Let the jumping around happen in heads rather than on a screen page! But I do enjoy a good app, and I'm sure that stronger app story telling/showing will develop fast. Exciting times!

    2. I hope so Pippa! Yes, that sort of sharing is brilliant. I wonder if bigger screens can help, like classroom whiteboards.

  12. Great post Helen. About 7 years ago, I polled people asking whether or not they owned iPhones. I also asked how likely they were to purchase a story app. This was when story apps were just starting out. I found your findings intriguing because I always wanted to do a follow-up poll and see if any of them changed their minds. The comments I received were similar to yours so I guess that hasn't changed. But I do know that majority of the people I polled back then now have iPhones. I was interested in this research because I am a picture book writer who contemplated getting my feet wet in the app/eBook market. I decided to do so since I knew technology wasn't going away. Thanks for this wonderful post! P.S. Sometimes games can get in the way of the story apps. I prefer the eBook without all the games.

  13. Thanks Romelle. My Twitter followers are very "booky" and so perhaps there might be different answers in a wider environment. But it was still very interesting to see their answers which mirrored my own personal thoughts about use of story apps.